In the beginning…

Back-to-school jitters are real, for teachers and students. Every fall I think of teachers who are doing new things. Teachers all over the country are starting their first year in the classroom, teaching a new grade or subject, or preparing to try a new strategy. I am excited for them—but also a little nervous. I remember my first day in the classroom as a new teacher. I felt unprepared and, frankly, a little overwhelmed, consumed by the thought, “Am I ready for this?”

This year, more teachers will likely have that feeling. Teacher shortages and high rates of disrupted learning mean many educators will be teaching reading for the first time. They will encounter  students who were behind in reading even before the pandemic, in need of significant intervention to read at grade level. Helping students develop their reading skills is essential, because research has shown that students who are not reading proficiently by the third grade experience long-term impacts on their educational and career progression. 

By establishing good habits at the beginning of the school year, teachers can be prepared to deliver effective reading instruction. Here are some ideas to try.


Understand the science of reading

State literacy standards are important for understanding what students need to know and be able to do. But, the standards do not explain how students learn to read or which teaching strategies are most effective. That’s where the science of reading comes in. It represents the vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading.

Teachers who don’t know what the science of reading is, or only know about it in the context of the “reading wars”, are not alone. While scientists and experts agree that the instructional methods influenced by the science of reading are effective, these methods are still not commonly taught in teacher preparation programs. But for teachers leading classrooms with new or struggling readers, understanding the science of reading is critical, proven by a robust body of research. According to some experts, if teachers incorporate the five components of structured literacy into their instruction, the current reading failure rate could drop from 20-30 percent to only 2-10 percent.

If you will be teaching new or struggling readers, start this year by learning about and practicing how to provide explicit, systematic instruction based on the science of reading. This means providing reading instruction in five key areas: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. 


Structure your reading instruction

Intentional, habitual reading instruction is important for students learning or struggling to read. Why? Reading doesn’t come naturally for all kids. According to research, only 40 percent of students learn to read easily. That means that 60 percent of students need something more. They need systematic, sequential, explicit instruction in decoding words. Teachers are often avid readers, so it’s easy to overlook the challenges some students have in developing literacy skills. But for students who struggle, you need more than a classroom full of books. Investing time in structured reading instruction will help more students develop strong reading skills. 


Start with a strong foundation, and build from there

All students need foundational reading skills. These essential skills include print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, and fluency. When students are taught these skills, they are more likely to be able to decode and recognize words with automaticity and speed so that they can focus on comprehension. Students who are proficient in foundational reading skills are more likely to become strong readers and enjoy the act of reading. 

Teachers can develop strong foundational reading skills in their students by instructing students at their current ability level. Some educators may feel like they need to challenge students beyond students’ current skills, especially if their test scores are below grade-level. That can be counterproductive. Instead, meeting students at their current level and incrementally introducing new skills will lead to better progress. There are free webinars available that explain foundational reading skills and how to effectively teach them.


Develop a community

Whether you are new to teaching or new to teaching reading, you need a supportive community. Everyone in your building has been in your shoes, so don’t be afraid to ask for help! Find the people in your school who know about free resources and successful strategies, or even (especially!) those who always have chocolate, cold water, or extra pencils. These connections can mean the difference between burnout and success. Asking for help now is also bound to come full circle. Soon you will be able to share your valuable experience and be the support system for someone else.

When you’re doing something new, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. For teachers already experiencing high rates of burnout, the stress can take a greater toll. But having the right tools, support and encouragement can help any teacher build self-assurance and resilience. And when they do, those educators will be more ready to help students become stronger, more confident readers.


About the author 

Diana Phillips is a Curriculum Associate for Read Naturally. In her 20 years of teaching students of all ages and ability levels, Diana has developed a passion for supporting teachers as they encourage students to become better readers.